"This is Mr. Haynes, Blake," she said, smiling at her son and nodding for him to shake hands with their neighbor.
"Call me Kyle."
Blake mumbled something that could have been a greeting, then dropped his arm to his side and stared at his shoes. Before Sandy could think of something to say that would include him in the conversation, Nichole came running toward her.
"Mommy, Mommy, there are flowers and birds in the backyard." Wide green eyes tilted up at the corners as the eight-year-old grinned. "I saw a bluebird."
Lindsay planted her hands on her hips. "That wasn't a bluebird."
"Was too." Nichole spotted the stranger. She ducked behind her mother, then stuck her head out shyly and smiled. Dimples appeared on both cheeks.
Kyle crouched down next to her. "Hi there. You must be Nichole."
"Uh-huh." Her youngest nodded.
"I'm Kyle. I live right there." He pointed to the gatehouse, then rose. "This one's going to be a heartbreaker when she gets older."
"I know. Killer dimples," Sandy said.
Kyle winked at the little girl. "I've always had a thing for green eyes."
Sandy fought the instinctive urge to point out her eyes were green, too. What was it about this man that got to her? Maybe it was spending the last two years living alone. Since Thomas had died, she hadn't been on a date. She wasn't interested in getting involved. So why was she so completely aware of Kyle?
Lindsay leaned against the station wagon and tossed her long brown hair over her shoulder. She gave them what Sandy called her "I'm so sophisticated" look.
"Is there anything fun to do in this hick town?" Lindsay asked.
Kyle glanced at her. "You don't like Glenwood?"
"I'm from L.A. It's like this is a different planet."
Kyle grinned. Lindsay swallowed. Sandy ruffled Nichole's red curls and knew exactly how her daughter felt.
"You'll like it here," he promised. "Life's going to seem a little slower, but there's lots of fun stuff for kids to do. There's softball and soccer." He glanced at Nichole. "There's a team for girls just your age. And my brother Travis has a daughter who's eight."
"That's fine for the children," Lindsay said, her tone pointing out how much more mature she was than the other two. "But what about me?"
"We'll find something," Kyle promised.
"It's really not your problem," Sandy said. "I appreciate the welcome and all that, but we've got work to do. Children, say goodbye to Mr. Haynes."
Blake muttered something under his breath, while Nichole just smiled winningly. Lindsay gave her mother the hate stare, then said, "Goodbye, Kyle. I'm sure we'll run into each other again."
He turned and started toward his motorcycle. Lindsay noticed the bike for the first time. "Way cool," she said and started after him. Sandy grabbed the girl's arm. "Another time."
"We've got to get the house ready."
Kyle picked up his jacket, then turned toward her. "Have you been in the place yet?"
She glanced at the house. "No. We've just arrived."
He hesitated. "Maybe I should take a look around first."
"The house has been closed up for a while. You don't know what could be inside."
If she hadn't been afraid he would think she was as immature as Lindsay, she would have rolled her eyes. Couldn't he come up with a better line than that? "The roof and plumbing have just been replaced. We're not afraid of a little dirt or a few spiderwebs."
"I hate spiders," Nichole said.
"I know, honey. I'll take care of any we find." She returned her attention to Kyle. "We'll be fine. I promise."
Sandy grabbed Nichole and Blake by the hand, then started toward the house. "Come on, Lindsay," she called as her daughter stood there staring foolishly at Kyle. Lindsay's attraction to the older man was understandable. He was incredibly good-looking. Handsome, tall, strong, with a smile that could-
She forced herself away from the specifics. He had everything a girl could want in her first adolescent crush. But the idea that Lindsay had just discovered the opposite sex made Sandy feel old. Lindsay had just taken her first steps into womanhood. Sandy felt as if that part of her life was over. She was only thirty-two. According to women's magazines, she was entering her sexual peak. Unfortunately, she had no plans to find a man and take advantage of her condition.
"See you around," Kyle called.
As she reached into the pocket of her white shorts for the house key, she realized that Kyle hadn't been scared off by her children. If anything, he'd seemed genuinely interested in them. That was unusual. Most men couldn't run fast enough in the other direction.
So what, she thought as she fitted the key into the lock. Maybe he was pretending. Of course, it didn't matter if he wasn't. He wasn't going to be interested in a woman like her, and she sure didn't want to get involved with a man like him. Or any man. She was very happy being single and in control of her life.
"You guys ready?" she asked as she pushed open the door.
None of their responses were very enthusiastic. Sandy felt a twinge of guilt. She'd uprooted her kids from everything they'd ever known. It was the right decision, she reminded herself. They would adjust. Being raised in a small town like Glenwood was better for them than a big city like Los Angeles. Still, the guilt persisted. She knew it would be hard on them. The move was going to be hard on her, too. But doing the right thing usually was.
She stepped into the house. The foyer was huge, larger than their old living room had been. The house was dark. Dust covered the hardwood floors and cobwebs hung from the ten-foot ceiling. But the structure was stunningly beautiful.
Sunlight filtered through a crack in the drapes, highlighting the fancy molding and the curved staircase that led to the second story. The old place needed a good cleaning and a coat or two of paint. They could easily get that done before the movers arrived with their furniture.
"Mom?" Blake said, tugging on the sleeve of her red T-shirt. "What's that over there?" He was pointing to a far corner of the foyer where something small and dark moved.
"I'm not sure."
"I'm getting out of here," Lindsay said.
"Don't be ridiculous," Sandy said. "It's nothing." She started walking toward the small shadow. "It's just-"
The shadow moved toward the light. Sandy, Nichole, Blake and Lindsay screamed in unison.
Kyle was halfway up the front-porch stairs before they finished screaming. He raced across the porch, flung open the door. Four people turned toward him-four pairs of eyes begged for help. As he hurried toward Sandy and her kids, he instinctively went for his pistol. There was nothing at his hip except for his jeans. Damn.
"What is it?" he asked.
Everyone answered at once.
"That thing there," Sandy said, pointing behind her. She shivered.
"Totally gross," Lindsay agreed.
Nichole moved closer and clutched his leg.
"It's coming toward us," Blake cried.
The four of them shrieked and descended upon him. Sandy pressed against his left side. Lindsay huddled behind his back. Nichole kept a hold on his right leg, while Blake held on to Sandy.
Kyle almost didn't mind. Having Sandy plaster herself against him gave him a nice warm feeling in his belly… and a few inches farther south. She stared up at him with her big green eyes. Mascara darkened her lashes, but other than that, she didn't seem to be wearing any makeup. He liked the freckles scattered on her nose and the way her normally firm mouth quivered at the corners. She smelled nice, part floral fragrance, part something a little more sensual. He could feel her breasts, and one hipbone. Her legs brushed against his and he wished he were wearing shorts instead of jeans.
But there were children present, he reminded himself. So he turned his thoughts from the very enticing Sandy Walker to the large empty room in front of them. Aside from a few cobwebs and some dust, he couldn't see anything to get excited about.
"What are we hiding from?" he asked.
Sandy pointed toward the corner. "That… that thing!"
He squinted, trying to see into the shadows. One of the shadows moved. "It's a mouse."
"Oh, God, I know. The place could be infested with them. I hate rodents. Mice, rats. Yuck."
Yuck? Sensible Sandy had said yuck? He liked that.
Kyle tried to take a step, but they wouldn't let him. "I want to go check it out," he said, trying to free himself from Nichole. She just held on tighter. Her small hands clutched at his jeans as if she would never let go.
"Why?" Sandy asked. "I'll have to call an exterminator."
"You can't kill it, Mom," Lindsay said from behind him.
"Fine, then it can live in your room," Sandy snapped.
Nichole glanced at her mother. "Mommy, don't hurt the mouse. Please."
"Honey, you don't understand. We can't live with it running around. Mice are dirty. They get in the food and they could make us all sick."
Nichole's eyes, so like her mother's, darkened with tears. "You can't kill it."
"Ladies," Kyle said.
They ignored him.
"We'll talk about this later," Sandy said.
"That means the mouse is going to die for sure," Lindsay grumbled.
"Ladies," he repeated.
"You don't know everything," Sandy said, her voice strained. "There are humane ways to get rid of mice. I don't want to see it killed any more than you do, but it and its friends cannot live here with us."
"The mouse has friends?" Nichole asked.
Kyle raised his right hand to his face, stuck his thumb and index finger in his mouth, then blew hard. The piercing whistle silenced them instantly.
"Now that I have your attention," he said, "will everyone please take one step back and let go of me?"
Sandy stared up at him for a moment, blushed, then quickly moved away, brushing her hands against her shorts. "Sorry," she mumbled, obviously flustered. "I guess we overreacted to the mouse."
He wanted to tell her that she didn't need to apologize. He'd liked her pressing up against him. It did him good to know she wasn't as completely in charge as she wanted the world to think. It also evened the score a little. She'd been tying him up in knots since the first time his brother Jordan had brought her home sixteen years ago.
Something about her had set his adolescent heart on fire and he'd never forgotten her. Still, this wasn't the time or place to review old memories.
Kyle glanced around the empty foyer, then at the small mouse that had returned to its nest in the corner by the stairs. "I want to look over the rest of the house before you get to work," he said.
Sandy bristled. Her spine stiffened and her hands curled into fists. "I've already had the house inspected," she said, staring at him. "The man told me the building was in excellent condition and that the only problem I should expect would be cleaning up after a lengthy vacancy."
Kyle tried to remember if she'd always had this much trouble accepting help. He couldn't say for sure. Maybe it was something she'd learned while she was gone. "Did he say anything about mice?" he asked.
She hesitated. "Well, no. He probably thought they were normal for as long as the house has been vacant."
"You want to be by yourself when you find out what else this guy considered normal?"
"Oh. I hadn't thought of that."
He grinned. "So you don't mind if I check out the rest of the house?"
Her hands relaxed. "Um, no. Thanks. I appreciate the help."
"I'm not staying in here with that," Lindsay said, pointing at the mouse's nest.
"Why don't you kids wait outside while your mom and I check things out," Kyle said.
The children didn't budge.
Sandy looked from him to her kids, then sighed. "Lindsay, take your brother and sister outside and keep an eye on them, please."
Lindsay walked to the door without looking back. Blake followed silently. Only Nichole hesitated.
"Go on, sweetie. I won't be long. It's warm outside. Why don't you go and see if you can find that bluebird again?"
"Okay." Nichole smiled.
She had dimples in each check and her mother's eyes. Kyle felt a slight twist in his gut. Sometimes he got the crazy notion that he should have risked settling down and having kids. He knew better. It was like wishing for the moon. Something to think about when he'd had too much to drink or got lonely, but completely irrational. He wasn't the type. Long-term relationships didn't work out.
When the children had left, Sandy turned to him and nodded purposefully. "Let's begin in the kitchen," she said, and turned to the right.
"It's this way." He motioned to their left.
"But they sent me a floor plan."
"Then your floor plan was reversed. The kitchen is through here."
"How do you know?"
"I used to know Kelsey Michaelson. I've been in this house before." He looked at the dust and cobwebs. "But not in a long time."
"I see." She started toward the kitchen.
"Hold on." He caught up with her and took her hand. Her fingers were warm against his. She looked startled when he touched her. Good. He would deal better with Sandy if he kept her off guard. "Why don't you let me lead the way."
Her gaze narrowed as she pulled her hand free of his. "Why?"
"In case we run into something creepy or slimy-or yucky."
"All right." She stepped back to allow him to pass.
He led her through the empty dining room. The hardwood floors were dirty, but otherwise in great shape. He stopped and bent down. "These will clean up and look terrific," he said, brushing his fingers against the wood.
She stopped next to him. Close, but not too close. He grinned. If his instincts were correct, he made Sandy nervous. The thought pleased him.
"The realtor told me all the floors are in excellent condition," she said. "I've been reading up on refinishing, in case some of them need a little work."
"You can't do that yourself."
She planted her hands on her hips. "Because I'm a woman?" She didn't wait for him to answer. "Give me a break. I don't need a man in my life to make things work. I can do it all by myself, thank you very much."
He stood up slowly, moving closer as he did. "Not because you're a woman. Because there's probably a thousand square feet of hardwood flooring on the first floor alone. It would take you months if you did it yourself, and some of the materials you have to use can smell pretty nasty. You wouldn't want your children breathing in that stuff for so long, would you?"
She held his gaze, searching his face as if looking for deception. "That makes sense," she said grudgingly.
"And because you're a woman." He grinned, then held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. "Just kidding, I promise."
A slight smile pulled at the corners of her mouth. "You haven't changed at all."
"Not enough to matter," he agreed. "Come on, let's check out the house."
He led the way to the large bright kitchen. Big windows opened onto the side yard and driveway. The curtains looked as if they'd been lunch for a hungry swarm of moths, while an army of ants trooped across the white tile counters. Sandy checked out the pantry and utility porch behind the kitchen, and Kyle opened cupboard doors.
"I don't see any signs that your mouse has relatives living here," he said.
She paused in the doorway to the pantry. "I won't ask what you're looking for." She folded her arms over her chest. "At least there's a lot of storage space in the pantry."